Canada a friendly home for illicit cash, corrupt real estate buys, report says

When this Vancouver home sold in 2011, the bidders were all from Mainland China.

Photograph by: Steve Bosch , Vancouver Sun

OTTAWA — Canada is doing a lousy job of cracking down on corrupt foreigners laundering their vast ill-gotten wealth by buying high-end assets such as luxury goods, diamonds, and mansions, according to a report released Thursday.

While Transparency International doesn’t single out any Canadian cities, the Berlin-based corruption watchdog makes clear that lax standards in Canada and other countries -- China and the U.S. also rank in the basement with Canada in TI’s assesment -- open the door to billions in “hot” money pouring into major cities like Vancouver, according to TI’s Canadian spokesman.

The report is called “Just For Show?” – a title that was meant to shame G20 leaders like former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who made promises at G20 summits to toughen rules

If TI’s proposed changes were now in place, Canadians could determine whether there’s hard evidence to back up claims that foreign “money launderers and other corporate kleptocrats” are buying up properties in Vancouver and Toronto, said TI Canada President Peter Dent. “Right now we don’t have a mechanism in place to actually test the veracity of those claims.”

The governing federal Liberal party made reference to unaffordable Vancouver and Toronto housing in its recent election platform, but offered only a vague pledge to consider “all policy tools.”

Finance Minister Bill Morneau couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday on whether Ottawa will follow through on Harper’s commitments.

In Thursday’s report, only the United Kingdom got a top rating for having a “very strong framework” for fighting the flow of illicit money.

Canada was ranked at the bottom among those that had a “weak” framework, along with the U.S., China, South Korea, Brazil and Australia.

Those placed ahead of Canada included Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

The report lists “principles” adopted by Harper and other G20 leaders in 2014 that were aimed at ensuring that rich people can’t hide their money by investing through numbered shell companies and nominee directors. Those principles were based on 2012 recommendations by a G20 task force.

Yet “Canada does not fully comply with any of the G20 principles,” according to the report.

Failure to act makes it “incredibly difficult to stop a corrupt politician from buying a luxury mansion with money stolen from public coffers if he uses simple measures to hide his connection to the funds,” according to TI.

And that inaction is surprising given “major scandals coming to light in recent years regarding the ease with which corrupt money or money of unknown origin can enter the high-end real estate market in cities such as New York and London.”

There have been numerous allegations from people like David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 through 2012, that “hot” foreign money is driving up housing prices in Vancouver.

A report by Vancouver researcher Andy Yan, which looked into recent sales of 172 properties in high-end neighbourhoods like West Point Grey, found that 32 per cent of properties with a single name on the title were homemakers and another four per cent were students. The average price of those homes was a little over $3 million, and two-thirds were purchased by people with non-Anglicized Chinese names.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, a harsh critic of the federal government’s lax standards on foreign ownership, endorsed on Thursday TI’s call for rules that force actual buyers to identify themselves to authorities.

“Hot money flees from this kind of disclosure system,” said Kurland, who has called on the Canada Revenue Agency to push for greater disclosure on real estate transactions.

He said he’s hoping the new Trudeau government will be inspired by the report.

“This is about ‘following the money.’ Canadians should be grabbing the moral high ground, and the report shows we can do better.”

Among the points in the report:

• Real estate agents in seven G20 countries, including Canada and China, “are not required by law” to identify the names of rich investors operating through nominees or numbered companies, the report states.

• Canada and Turkey are the only two G20 countries that don’t require their own financial institutions to determine whether their clients are high-ranking foreign government officials.

• Canada and China are among just five G20 countries that don’t require professionals such as lawyers, real estate agents and dealers in luxury goods to determine who is the actual “beneficial owner” of the product or service being purchased.

• B.C. is among the majority of Canadian provinces where corporate registry information is “insufficient to support the identification of the beneficial owner.”

• Canada has one of the worst records for domestic cooperation, since a court order is required by authorities other than Fintrac, Canada’s financial intelligence unit, to get “basic ownership information” of assets.


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